Sept 22-27, Maramures
(I’m sorry but it is tough choosing pictures for this segment)
Coming into Satu Mara in Romania I was again feeling quite exhausted, for no good reason. The day had been long, but quite interesting and rewarding. My sim card from Hungary did not work and so I was floundering in down town Satu Mare. The information centre, if I had been able to find it would not have been open and I had little idea where to go. I asked a young boy in front of a postal van and he connected my phone to his via a wifi connection and found where my apartment might be. It was back on the other side of the river. It wasn’t really that far away but in the cold late day it felt taxing. The apartment I had rented, which I now decided needed to be two days, had a big queen sized bed in one bedroom, a double in another room and a high end kitchen in a third room. I was wondering if I was going to get all this for the equivalent of $44 a night.
Heading off to find a place for a drink and ultimately a meal, I found an Irish pub, but it didn’t have draft beer or food. I was getting pretty down. But I had a beer and then down the street found a very fancy restaurant where I was the only customer. But it was good and the lady running it very nice. I had a good sleep after watching a little TV. They had both CNN and BBC channels.
After making my own breakfast in the morning I headed into the centre again where I found the information centre and a book store where I got a pretty good Romanian map that would withstand rain. My Hungarian cycle atlas suffered on my ride across Hungary. An interesting sidelight to my Satu Mare visit was a women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball qualifying tournament underway in the town square. I enjoyed cycling around the town a bit and found a good bike shop where I topped up the air pressure in my tires. The first time since Frankfurt. But mostly I was recuperating. The prevalent architecture in down town Satu Mare is epic communist concrete, a bit of a shock after the impressive 19th century Hapsburg edifices in Austria and Hungary.
The next day, I was headed to the train station. Mostly I had decided that I wanted to jump over some busy roads before I began riding into Maramures. And it was good that I had because it was now raining harder than any day yet. I got to the station to find that there was no train along the line that I wanted so I bought a ticket to Baia Mare, the normal jumping off point for Maramures, but I had a three hour wait. I headed into the centre and found a coffee shop. I was back about 45 minutes before the train was to leave. I missed it by 15 minutes. I had not noticed that I had lost an hour on entering Romania. So I had another three hour wait. Back into the centre to another restaurant. Each of these 10 minute trips into and out of the centre got me nice and wet.
Finally I connected. It had taken until 4:00 to get out of town and I was in Baia Mare around 6:00. During these waits I had bought a Romanian sim card, an online Romania Bulgaria guidebook and I made a pension reservation for Baia Mare. It was not raining when I left the station looking for the pension in Baia Mare but I was drained anyway and getting pretty down. The pension was nowhere near the centre and I was expecting to be isolated unable to find a restaurant. Then everything began to change. It was a very interesting neighbourhood place with a nice restaurant and lots of activity. Pretty dreary unproductive day, but a good finish and a riding plan for the next day, rain or shine.
It didn’t take long to get out of town in the morning. I never did see Baia Mare centre. I was climbing from the first kilometre. It was a very gloomy overcast day but it never did rain and I was finally moving. I had two route possibilities, both with a climb to around 1000 m, over the first of the Carpathians that I would face. I missed my most likely junction and just kept on climbing through a town called Baia Sprie, where I saw my first wooden church. It was early Sunday and so there was a service.
Soon after the switchbacks in a deep forest started. The road has been newly surfaced and I think widened. It was also fairly quiet. At no time did the grade get above about 7% and so I was able to just keep on slowly grinding up the hill, probably at least 20 switchbacks. It took about 2 ½ hours from my start until I hit Pasul Guta at 987 m. I had only stopped the once to visit the church and so my conditioning and the favourable road made for a pleasant morning, but it was cold at the top. After a coffee I put on all my clothes for the run down. Again many switchbacks and then villages started again.
This is the Mara valley, famous for its wooden buildings and gates. I began stopping fairly frequently for pictures and then I had a ciorba (soup) for lunch, almost getting warm. I was making pretty good time and so at this point I made a decision to cut out on small roads to a Budesti where one of the more important old churches is. At this point I was 20 km from Sighetu, my likely night destination. I was not to get there today. Instead of having a continuous down river run into Sighetu I now proceeded to head into and then climb out of three different valleys. My shivers were replaced with sweat. After the long climb to start the day I didn’t need any more climbing. But I did get to Budesti and visited the old world heritage site. At most of these old churches there are a little group of elderly women all in black, possibly because it was Sunday. I now think some wear their black all the time but not all.
Now it should have been downhill from there but I had decided not to ride all the way to Sighetu and started to look for a pension, which now seemed to be scarce. Twice I went off following someone’s direction only to return to my run towards Sighetu. Finally I was standing in front of a closed pension as it was starting to get dark when a nice woman waved me over and we agreed that she would help. A few minutes later her daughter, son-in-law and grandson arrived in a car. I followed them to the daughter’s house where they plied me with palinca and fed me all of the things Mariana has told me to eat. The daughter, one of those wonderful thirty something women who should be running the world, spoke good English. I toasted the grandmother, the husband and then the grandfather arrived and I got to toast him as well.
It turned out that the daughter ran a transport office housed in a pension, basically closed for the season. We all headed out, now in the dark with a few shots of palinca to help me to see and ride better to what turned out to be a luxury pension. The daughter left me with instructions of how to use the coffee machine, the beer cooler and how to close up in the morning before I left. I had coffee and a beer with the other occupant who acts a bit like a caretaker. Another one of those great human experiences after potential trouble that makes travel so rewarding.
If it sounds like I am struggling and unhappy then I am sorry. This is what I like to do. If it was easy then I wouldn’t be here and if I didn’t want to face difficulties then I would go with an organized group. The challenges I put myself into are not really that great but at my stage of life a little challenge is a spice that I look for, so bear with me.
I had a cold fast ride in the morning into Sighetu, enjoying the sun after a few cold wet days. I visited a museum created to memorialize the tragedies of the communist period in Romania and finished planning my next few days and had an easy day. Most hopefully the weather looks good for a while.
Leaving Sighetu the next day I was headed up the Isa Valley. It was to be a day of many stops as the visual attractions are endless. I had talked with a person in the Information Centre in Sighetu and he had pointed out some valleys leading off of the Isa that I had to visit. I had had a taxing off route run on my ride down the Mara valley and normally I would just give it a miss and head on up the main valley, towards the next phase of my trip. However I reasoned that maramures was really the prime attraction for me in Romania so after an hour or so when the first little side-road appeared off I went. I was expecting the gradual climb up the Isa to be replaced by the more serious climb that headed up the narrow valley to a series of small villages with wooden buildings, old churches and working people in the fields.
Indeed the narrow one lane road was steeper but it was paved and almost car free, so I was enjoying it. Passing through one and then a second village I was beginning to see that this would be an all-day side trip. And that proved to be doubly true when just out of the second village the road turned to steep loose gravel. I could ride it a bit but when it got steep I had to push. Three times I was to push before I finally got to the top of the ridge before heading down. It was here that some really nice views of the valleys and of people began. Dropping down on the steep gravel was not really much easier; my brakes got a good workout. I didn’t walk any of it but probably should have.
The next village had an old wooden church and some paved roads. I began to understand that these villages have no restaurants, only places for beer or coffee both of which I had thinking that I had an easy 5 or 6 kms over another ridge to Botiza, famous for its pensions. But immediately I hit gravel and was walking again. This time though it was only the one time and before long the road dropped into the valley and pavement began as the village stretched out for a number of kms along the little creek.
Passing what appeared to be the centre of Botiza, with three churches and the confluence of two creeks I began looking for a pension. It was only 3:00, but I had decided it would be where I would stay. I tried three places, all very nice seeming to have 6 or 8 rooms. No one answered the door at any of them. So I phoned one of the numbers and got a person who in quite difficult communication led me to believe that she would not be able to help me until 7::00. I asked in a store and was sent to a big house beside the churches where a young woman with four young kids and an injured leg began to phone around. It appears that as it is past the tourist prime time and harvest is in full swings so most pensions didn’t really want me. The pensions in these valleys need to provide the meals for their guests as there are no restaurants and guests are too much trouble at harvest time.
So finally the woman agreed to look after me and let me into the most attractive old house right in front of the churches. During these discussions with her bad leg she was quite stressed. Her children were about having all sorts of fun and her husband seemed to just like watching it all. I bought a beer from the store walked around a bit, had a shower and began to wait for dinner. We had not arranged a time so I kind of spun my wheels but there was always something to watch. Every few minutes a horse and wagon would go by, the men were visiting, smoking and drinking in front of the store, kids were on bikes, roller blades, even one on a motorized skateboard type of thing. The husband came out of the house now dressed in his full black cassock and headed off in his car. Now I see why he had a big black beard. The husband was the priest. He was preceded by the woman’s father as the priest. Three big houses chock a block with furnishings and artifacts attest to the long church history in the town, and the woman who was trying to look after me seem to be at the centre of organizing things.
Finally after 7:00 I was sat down to a ciorba as a first course as my hostess was still hobbling often with one of her kids under her arm. Before long a Swiss couple joined me who would have been turned away if I hadn’t already been there and things were being put together for me. We had a long visit aided by half a bottle of palinka provided with our meal. Another very interesting day.
In the morning, we had a great breakfast and I headed off down picking up the main Isa valley quite some way along from where I had left it yesterday. I am amazed at how many people live and work in these small valleys. All along the way people were working and there are many hundreds of houses. It was bright and sunny but very cold, particularly since the hills often shaded the road. Steam was rising from the hay and the horses as I rode by.
All too soon I was in the main valley continuing the climb up the Isa. I bought a drink and a bar at exactly to right time as the road turned and began heading to my next major pass, Setret at 817m. No where near as many switch backs as three days ago got me to the top where I had my last look at Maramures, before heading south and Transylvania. Maramures is a wonder and I loved my brief time with her.